Cottonwood Heights • As bouts on the center mat of Brighton High’s gym took place on Wednesday evening, alumnus Scott Seiter sat with five of his former wrestling teammates from his days as a Bengal. All of them were in their mid- to late 20s and on hand to watch their old high school team face off against rival Hillcrest High.
Across the way, Don Neff, 74, who coached both Brighton and Hillcrest, and won multiple state championships, sat with several former wrestling coaches from all over Utah. The group of coaches reconnected in a get-together shortly before the meet, as Neff and former Hillcrest coach Tex Casto were honored.
The two sides the gym represented both sides of the tradition that is the Battle of the Ax, a wrestling meet between Brighton and Hillcrest that reached its 50th year Wednesday. The lower sections of bleachers were filled almost to the brim as each side cheered uproariously for their school to etch its place in history.
“It’s just really cool to reflect on 50 years of a rivalry and how it’s impacted the people involved,” said Tom Sherwood, who’s taught at Brighton since 1999 and became principal last year.
At the reception before the meet, past wrestlers and coaches young and old reminisced about their days with high school teams. Sherwood said many of them talked about what they learned through wrestling, and what lessons they have imparted throughout their lives. Seiter said one of the most important lessons he learned from his wrestling days was discipline.
The Battle of the Ax started in 1969, when Neff, in an effort to promote the sport, brainstormed with Casto how the two rival schools could incorporate a traveling prize for when the two schools faced off during the season. Casto just happened to be in possession of a rusty ax, which was used as the first-ever prize for the winner.
In a moment that seemed fitting for the gravity of a 50-year anniversary, the meet went down to the wire. Brighton freshman Tyler Knaak defeated Hillcrest’s Jason Barnes in overtime of the 285-pound division to give the Bengals the ax.
“Coming out here, winning the Battle of the Ax for my entire team makes me feel like I’m so proud of my team for helping me,” said Knaak, who only started wrestling this year.
Brighton had won 45 of the 48 competitions over the years heading into Wednesday. The 1990 installment of the event was canceled because of a bomb threat at the school, said Jerry Christensen, a Brighton alumnus who has helped organize the battle for several years.
Wednesday marked the final time the battle would be held at either Brighton or Hillcrest as they presently exist. Both schools undergo a complete reconstruction over the next three years, said Canyons District Superintendent Jim Briscoe.
But next year, the rivalry will live on at Hillcrest’s new gym.
“Those types of traditions build school spirit, it engages students, it engages families, it pulls communities together,” Briscoe said. “It’s just a great sport and a great opportunity for a 50-year tradition to help both communities.”
Bob Kawa, a former wrestling coach at Hillcrest, said the Battle of the Ax brings helps bring the wrestling community and the student bodies of both schools closer. He said despite the intensity of the rivalry over the years, he has made lifelong friends because of his involvement.
Neff said in its heyday, the Battle of the Ax would attract upward of 4,000 people and at times culminate in fights between fans. At one time in the mid-1980s, the ax was stolen from the Brighton trophy case and did not turn up again for about 20 years, Neff said.
And while recent years attendance has gone down, the tradition has stayed alive. When Knaak completed the deciding takedown on Barnes, the Brighton fans erupted in cheers, some of them spilling onto the mat to celebrate with the team. Hillcrest, on the other hand, stood still and silent, possibly already thinking ahead to next year.